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Daddy review: Gripping crime thriller and stoic defence of a convict

Release Date: 08 Sep 2017 / Rated: A / 02hr 14min

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Mayur Lookhar

Director Ashim Ahluwalia and lead actor Arjun Rampal create a dark, intense biopic that keeps you on the edge of your seat.

Growing up in Mumbai in the 1980s and 1990s, one often heard of the dreaded gangsters, their gang wars, and the underworld-police-politician nexus. Much of the goondaism stemmed from the closure of the textile mills that once dotted central Mumbai and used to drive the city's economy. Their dissolution left tens of thousands of workers jobless and their families destitute. Inevitably, some took to crime.

Arun Gulab Gawli was one such young man. Hailed as a hero in his bastion in Agripada, Daddy, as he is fondly known among supporters, is serving a life sentence after being convicted in August 2012 of the murder of a Shiv Sena municipal councillor, Kamlakar Jamsandekar.

For a man who dared to take on gangster Dawood Ibrahim and faced many criminal charges, the motive for killing a municipal councillor was not quite clear, but the court found him guilty and Gawli went behind bars.

Gawli had perhaps become history for the common Mumbai civilian until director Ashim Ahluwalia decided to reopen his files and create a crime thriller, aptly titled Daddy. The film is based on Gawli's life but Ahluwalia has taken a few creative liberties as well. 

The story begins with the cold-blooded murder of MLA Mhatre and inspector Vijaykar (Nishikant Kamat) hoping to nail prime suspect Gawli (Arjun Rampal), for whom he has been gunning for years. To get to his target, Vijaykar grills those close to Gawli and gathers evidence that he hadn’t been able to earlier.

The clock turns back to the 1980s to show how Gawli rose from local tough to notorious gangster. So, we do have to endure the usual poor man’s sob story. But what does hook you in the first half is the enmity between Gawli and Maqsoodbhai (standing in for 'Dawoodbhai').

The wily Maqsood decides to eliminate BRA (Babu Reshim, Rama Naik, and Arun Gawli) after Gawli turns his back on him. What ensues is a fierce battle fought in tiny, dirty streets. Blood is spilt on both sides, and the only survivors are Gawli and Maqsood.

Pitted against a powerful enemy, Gawli knows prison is his safest hideout. And the only way out to freedom is politics. Meanwhile, following the 1993 Mumbai riots and subsequent bomb blasts, Maqsood is on the run, and it’s Vijaykar who is now Gawli’s enemy number 1.

Apart from playing Gawli, Rampal shares the story credit with Ahluwalia. Most of Gawli's life is out there in the public domain. More than the story, it is the robust screenplay that drives Daddy. Ahluwalia triumphs in creating a dark, intense, gripping biographical drama that keeps you on the edge of your seat. The action is bloody but not in your face. The riveting background score adds an element of thrill to the plot, almost serving as an additional character, and complements the screenplay beautifully.

Ahluwalia has shown in the past, as with his acclaimed film Miss Lovely (2012), that he likes dark subjects and characters and loves shooting in the shady bylanes of Mumbai. Here Arjun Rampal and company are made to shoot in slums, a brothel and a dairy farm. The real locations add to the authenticity of the plot.

After a gripping first half-hour, the screenplay does drag a bit, but the intense Maqsood-Gawli battle keeps you on tenterhooks. The film comes alive again when the B and R of BRA — Babu Reshim (Anand Ingale) and Rama Naik (Rajesh Shringarpure) — are bumped off. This is not to suggest that the actors playing these two characters were bad, but only that the plot regains momentum after their murders.

Surprisingly, the character who remains largely unconvincing, even boring at times, is that of Maqsood, a poor clone of Dawood Ibrahim. We won't name the popular actor who plays the part, for that is the surprise of the film. Kamat as Vijaykar is also not very convincing.

With due respect to the cast, they don’t blow you away with their performances. Rampal’s prosthetic nose job makes him look a lot like Gawli, but he is understated in his performance. Maybe Gawli liked to let his guns do the talking. But there is no drop in Rampal’s intensity, much of it reflected in his keen eyes. Not since Rock On (2008) has the model-turned-actor put in such a fine performance.

The artiste who blows you away with her simplicity, however, is Tamil actress Aishwarya Rajesh, who plays Zubeida, the young Muslim woman who elopes with Gawli. Aishwarya reflects well the pain of being a gangster’s wife. Zubeida is the calming influence in Gawli’s life, even running from pillar to post to save her husband from the gallows.

Though his role was rather brief, the actor playing the character of Southiya, Maqsood’s hired gun, deserves praise for his menacing display. 

In a film riding on gangsters, gang wars and gangster's molls, there are some ‘meaty’ scenes. The first one comes at Maqsood’s Eid iftaar party when Gawli refuses to shake hands with the host, saying, "Mere haath gande hain [My hands are unclean]", even as he continues to dig into the biryani. Then we have Gawli being supplied hash in a mutton bone which goes undetected by the police.

It is often believed that sex and profanity are integral to gangster films, but Ahluwalia proves that is wrong. Daddy has hardly any explicit scenes or nasty cuss words. The film, cannot, however, escape the charge of glorifying a criminal. But, in its defence, Daddy is not your cliched Hindi crime thriller where the anti-hero is projected as an exaggerated Robin Hood. Daddy does have its Robin Hood moments, but they are not cheap glorification. Yes, the film offers a stoic defence of Gawli, but it does not hail him as a messiah. Viewers can decide for themselves whether Gawli was guilty, but Ahluwalia does succeed in creating a 'daddy' among crime thrillers.

Gawli had a host of criminal charges against him, but Ahluwalia focuses on the war with Maqsood and the murder of the MLA. In 14 days, one may get to see a different side to Gawli when Apoorva Lakhia’s Haseena Parkar, based on the life of Dawood's sister whose husband Ismail Parkar was bumped off by the Gawli gang, hits the theatres. Daddy has fired the first shot. It would be interesting to see how Haseena and her brother respond.